Chapter 1

Hard Decision


Artist : Joe Slucher

Author : Shona Kinsella

Miranya walked as fast as she dared through the town, trying not to call attention to herself. She needn’t have worried – townspeople bustled to and fro, carrying piles of belongings and dragging infants along behind them. An air of panic had settled over them all with the smoke that spewed from the mountain overlooking their home. The smell clung to everything, an ever-present hint of scorched earth.

The ground grumbled beneath her feet and Miranya found her gaze drawn to the menacing glow in the smoke-shrouded sky. Rounding a corner, she crashed into someone and bounced back, landing on her behind in the middle of the street. She paled when she saw the deep blue satin robe of the man she had collided with and quickly averted her gaze.

‘Watch where you’re going!’ the man in blue snapped, bending to pick up the wooden box that he had dropped. ‘You had better hope nothing has been broken.’

‘My apologies, venerable one,’ Miranya answered, avoiding eye contact. 

The man straightened his hat and hurried off without another glance in Miranya’s direction. 

‘Blasted merchants,’ Miranya muttered, getting to her feet and setting off once more. The Merchant’s Guild ran this town, acting as if they were royalty, just because they were rich. Miranya hated them, but they had the power to cause problems for anyone who got in their way.

As soon as she reached the edge of town, Miranya lifted her brightly patterned skirt and broke into a run, her sandaled feet pounding along the sandy path. Her long dark hair flew out behind her, the wind of her passing giving her the only relief she’d had from the oppressive heat in days. Her amulet bounced against her breastbone with the rhythm of her steps and Miranya thought of her mother. Thank all that was holy that she was not here to see what her daughter was about to do. 

The acrid smoke tainted Miranya’s mouth, filling it with the taste of destruction. She began to cough and had to slow to a walk, gasping at air that did not want to nourish her. As soon as she had caught her breath, she began to run again. She made the whole journey like that – running until the foul air forced her to walk, coughing and spluttering, until she could run once more. 

Even so, she feared she would be too late. 

Miranya judged it to be around noon when she approached the ramshackle hut, but she couldn’t be sure; the sun was lost somewhere behind the smoke that smothered them. The hut stood forlorn, it’s boards shrunken and weathered so that they did not quite meet in some places. The door hung askew and vines climbed the walls. For a moment, Miranya worried that the occupant had moved on; it had been several years since she had come here. 

Then a familiar smell wafted out, a mix of herbs and the metallic tang of blood. Miranya took a moment to let her heart slow and then stepped up to the crooked door, raising her hand to knock.

‘Come in, Miranya the Wanderer,’ a cracked voice came from inside before her fist met the wood. 

Miranya pulled the door open and stepped inside, straining to see in the dim interior. The hut seemed empty, a single chair in front of the firepit in the centre and a rickety-looking bed pushed against the far wall. 

Miranya blinked, and a tiny, wizened woman appeared right in front of her. She stepped back, her hand flying to the amulet that lay against her chest. 

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that, Elfrin,’ she said, not bothering to hide her annoyance. 

‘I know,’ Elfrin said with gap-toothed grin. ‘What brings you out here?’

‘I need your help.’

‘Isn’t that why anyone comes here?’ Elfrin lit the fire in the pit and hung a heavy cauldron over it while they spoke. ‘Would you care to be more specific?’

‘The smoke, it’s getting worse. And last night, there was ash falling from the sky. Great flakes of it that settled over everything, like a blanket that we cannot throw off.’

‘How observant of you,’ Elfrin said, tapping a foot. ‘What’s your point?’

‘The merchant’s guild has been telling everyone not to panic, that the mountain will soon return to its slumber, but I think they’re wrong. I think the mountain will explode like it did when my grandfather was a child. And I think it’s going to happen soon.’

‘I daresay you are correct.’ Elfrin turned to her cauldron and started picking things out of baskets that lay around the hut in no order that Miranya could make any sense of. 

‘Aren’t you frightened?’ Miranya asked, confused. 

‘I have certain … protections. Why aren’t you frightened?’ Elfrin asked, staring hard at Miranya. 

‘I’m terrified!’

‘Then why are you here? Why haven’t you taken all you can carry and gone as far from here as you can get?’

‘Because they won’t listen to me!’ Miranya snapped, frustrated. ‘And I can’t leave them all to die.’

Elfrin snorted.’ What do you think you can do about it? They’ll leave, or they won’t. Either way, it may be too late by now. You cannot save them from themselves.’

‘Can’t you make a potion, something that would make the guild more amenable to listening?’

‘I could. I’m not going to, though.’

‘Why?’ Miranya demanded. 

Elfrin threw something into the cauldron that sent green sparks dancing into the air above it. ‘Even if you could arrange to slip the potion to all of the guild leaders – no easy task on its own – there’s no guarantee that anyone would listen to them now that things have gone so far.’ She dropped a final ingredient into the cauldron and then turned away, dusting her hands. ‘It’s also not very ethical to make potions for use on people without their consent. Now, I’m not against pushing the limits of ethics, but only when it’s the most effective way to achieve a necessary goal. In this case, I don’t believe that to be true.’

Miranya slumped, the energy and determination that had driven her out here, to the recluse that they all visited and pretended not to, disappeared, leaving her weary.

‘There must be something I can do,’ she said, forcing the words past a lump in her throat.

‘I dare say if you stay here with me, you will be safe,’ Elfrin answered, patting the younger woman’s arm. ‘Then you can help them rebuild, if anyone survives.’

Miranya’s thoughts raced. She couldn’t save herself and leave her town to die. She wouldn’t be able to live with that choice. 

‘Aren’t there … aren’t there stories, about the gods making bargains with people? Maybe I could bargain with them. Maybe I can convince them to spare the town.’

Elfrin nodded. ‘Such things have been done before, but do not think it will be easy. The gods do not bargain lightly.’

‘Still, I have to try.’ Miranya straightened her back, once more determined now that she saw another possibility. ‘How do I contact them?’

Elfrin took a wooden cup and scooped some of the mixture from the cauldron. ‘Drink this. It will take you to the borderlands. Beware, though, I cannot promise who you will meet there.’

Miranya accepted the cup and looked into the dark, swirling liquid. ‘How did you know?’

Elfrin tapped the middle of her forehead, the place where the third eye was said to be located. ‘Drink up, it tastes worse when it’s cold.’

Miranya lifted the cup to her lips, took a deep breath and threw her head back, gulping down the bitter draught.

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